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Tuesday 22 October 2013

RPGPundit Reviews: Age of Treason: The Iron Simulacrum

RPGPundit Reviews: Age of Treason: The Iron Simulacrum

This is a review of the RPG setting book “Age of Treason: The Iron Simulacrum”; written by Jonathan Drake, published by Mongoose. This is the print edition, 200 pages long; a beautiful hardcover with an image of the simulacrum, maps on the inside cover, good layout, and sparse but nice interior illustrations, including a number of very good maps.

I suppose the first thing one should tell the author of “The Age of Treason” is that puns are really the lowest form of humour. But that’s really one of the few criticisms I can make of this setting.  As I mention above, its physically beautiful, and the interior content is very interesting.

I should mention that this is not a complete RPG, but a setting.  Its designed to be “compatible with the Legends system”; which I’ve found out is apparently something like Mongoose’s version of BRP/Runequest. 

There’s another criticism I think could be made of the game, which is that sometimes the author is not the most thoughtful about how he structures the contents of his book.  He jumps right in with Chapter 1 telling the story of the Taskan empire and its emperor (who ends up becoming a kind of almost-god, and this means he’s separated from normal humanity but still acts and rules through the aforementioned “Iron Simulacrum”, a kind of golem of himself; and how there was a Marble Simulacrum first that was destroyed).  You get a lot of information about the emperor and the imperial hierarchy (and a timeline-history of the empire), and I can totally understand why this was done the way it was, because the “story” of the Emperor and the Simulacrum are a central quirk of the setting. But chances are they’re not meant to be the central thing a PC party will be dealing with in the setting. In fact, odds are most PC groups won’t necessarily ever be dealing with that guy or his golem.  I think it might have been more clever, in other words, to reserve this section for later on, and instead start with a ground-level view of the Taskan empire: what is it, what’s it like to live there, where would the PCs start?

It may even have been smart to have started with an “out of character” view of what the setting is like, some kind of introduction that points out that the setting is not your standard medieval-high-fantasy, but has more roots in the classical world mixed in with a kind of sword & sorcery fantasy.

Things do get better from there, however, as we get right into character creation guidelines.  So largely the problem was that I don’t think the introductory chapter sets off the right initial tone; beyond that, by chapter two, you start getting into what’s important.  There are new rules introduced to the core of the Legend system, starting off with Social Class. I know not everyone is a fan of social class mechanics, particularly those used to freewheeling-D&D worlds where there’s the kind of lack of class consciousness you only see in the U.S. and Canada in the real world, but I personally think that few things add more to an historical or quasi-historical setting than having social class mean something.  It instantly produces the feeling that you’re not, in fact, in Kansas anymore (or Wisconsin, or Fantasy-Toronto, as the case may be). In Age of Treason, social status is defined as a new characteristic (ability score). It determines your available starting professions and starting money.

There are several other differences as well: the introduction of talents (innate skill bonuses), genius, and there are also caps on how high you can raise a skill (their basic percentage x 5). Characters begin with a basic set of common skills for their culture, and then choose a profession which gives them certain common skill bonuses and advanced skills.  I should note that this list of professions and what they can get/do tells me WAY more in terms of the nitty gritty of “implied setting”, of what playing in the world is really like, than the introduction did. There are dozens of professions available, ranging from rogues to military men to seamen to country-folk to service-industry people (like actors, barkeeps, courtesans, professional cultists, medical quacks, etc), Artisans (you could call them “professionals”, since they include things like surgeons and scribes), merchants, gentlemen and scholars.

After this, we get into the description of the world itself.  I’m going to merely state that the world in which the Taskan Empire (the empire of the Iron Simulacrum) is set seems to me to be both vaguely familiar to anyone who’s ever looked at the classical world (its a little bit Roman, a little bit Greek, some of the foreign cultures look like other foreign cultures of earth), and also quite a bit different and unique. This is not a setting like WFRP or my own Albion setting, where you have a very close just-slightly-warped copy of a real world historical period-place.  Nor is it something completely vague and unfamiliar like you get in some of the “too weird to live” fantasy settings (of which I’d include Glorantha; the Taskan Empire seems much more approachable to me than Glorantha); but its also far from bog-standard fantasy of the Forgotten Realms or Greyhawk.  So this makes it somewhat interesting.  There is both the familiar and the unfamiliar; to give one example, you have Orcs, whose homeland is on a different continent from the Taskan Empire, but they aren’t cave-dwellers, they’re pirates. This section does a good job of laying out the “rules” of the setting, in the bigger sense.  You are told, for example, that there are monsters in many variety, but humans tend to kill all the monsters they find, so you’re only likely to find these in far-away wilderlands. Spirits and demons (Daemons, really), are common and important. A person who becomes an object of worship to a sufficient extent may eventually become a god (though judging by the story of the Taskan emperor, this is not an easy thing in the least).  There are no big bad Sauron-types, great unified evils waiting to destroy civilization or snuff out the light of the world.  Magic is relatively common at lower levels of power, and has essentially snuffed out the social need for technological growth and innovation.

Religious activity is very important to the setting.  After all, people are citizens of the Taskan Empire inasmuch as they are sworn to worship the Divine Emperor. But they can worship other cults too. Religion is very old-school classical-pagan, its described as “transactional”; you worship because you get something in return. The setting book provides a decent list of the Tarskenian Pantheon; which are very much treated in a way that is more true to classical paganism than most RPGs.  “Pantheons” are not rigid structures or lists of gods, but more like matters of convenience.  Areas of influence are not all neat and tidy with divine portfolios that are all very sensible (like you tend to find in D&D), instead they’re extremely haphazard, the product of organic mythological and folkloric growth.  In game terms, you can gain magic power and divine spells through making “Pacts” with a god. Divine intervention and divine gifts are also possible.

Sorcery (non-divine magic) is also a reality in the setting, and rules are provided for the same. Likewise traditions (and rules) for spirit magic and spirit worship.  The book also provides some interesting guidelines on “cults, clubs and secret societies”, which are clearly a big part of the setting and probably would be an important part of any campaign.  These include not only things like cults of public or private worship, mystery cults, etc.; but also things like elite military units that act like a fraternity.

About halfway through the book you begin to get into the details of the empire, the gazetteer if you will. You’re given an overall detail, specific details about the most important cities, less and more general details about other cities, vague details about the outlying provinces and subject nations, and further territories.

Information is given about overland travel, including things like sailing conditions if you go by sea, and climate in general. Lists of possible encounters along the roads of the empire are provided; they’re good and useful for little encounters; I’m only sorry they weren’t presented as random tables!
Information about the other kingdoms besides the Empire are provided in a following chapter. You have people like the Korantians, who are apparently the descendants of the survivors of this world’s version of Atlantis, and who strike me as being the Greeks to the Empire’s Romans.  You have the plains of Kitan, where the “Sheng” live, barbarian horsemen that borrow a bit from the Scythians, a bit from the Huns and a bit from the Mongols. You have the Theocracy of the Jekkarenes, which are a moon-worshiping matriarchy that I think are otherwise supposed to be something like the Jews at the time of Roman occupation, what with this nation having been made into a “protectorate” of the Empire and the worship of the Divine Emperor being kind of forced upon them. You have the city-state of Sorandib, which is a city of magical artificers who are in the last throes of decadence as a power in the world.  I don’t think they’re meant to be like anyone, exactly. And you have a region called Assabia, that is mostly meant to be like Arabia.

It goes on; you also have the Kingdom of Yegusai, a client state that was unwise enough to have revolted against the Empire at one point, and the Thennalts, different cultures of barbarians or semi-barbarians, some of which have been incorporated into the empire and others of which are undoubtedly due to be. 

Overall, the gazetteer section of the book is quite detailed and no doubt provides a great deal of information needed to run a campaign in this setting.  The world is clearly coherent and well-thought-out.

The book also provides a “mini-campaign” meant to be an introduction for beginning-level characters.  This campaign is set up to assume that the PCs are all characters who are from the largest city of the Empire, Zarina (for which a nice map-illustration is provided), and are drafted into the imperial militia, sent off to the frontier, and used as a team of adventurers to accomplish the kind of missions and activities that “irregulars” would be best suited for. The mini-campaign is divided into various tasks, allowing lots of room for malleability. A flexible timeline of events is provided (complete with a calendar you can photocopy to tick off dates and thus keep track of time meticulously if you so desire; and noting key feast days and important dates); it would seem to me that this is set up so that the GM can either make the whole thing a fairly strict and linear kind of campaign, or adapt it into a kind of semi-sandbox.

The mini-campaign does a good job of adding detail to the key areas the PCs travel to. You get another very nice map of the destination-city of Pryjarna, and many details about the same, giving you some very good “implied setting” insights into how cities are supposed to be like in the setting.  There’s also a smaller-scale regional campaign map of the “frontier area” the PCs are billeted in, with interesting local details, and a map of a military fort, a village, a tower, and a caravanserai.  You get details on encounters, NPCs, the spread of a plague with guidelines on how to handle the illness which is very instructive, ruins to explore, and more.  This is a very large section of the book, and its really what finally makes the product; raising it above just “interesting but average” to something better.
The appendices to the book include some pre-generated adventurers and cultural background tables for non-Taskan characters.

So, what can I say in conclusion about the Iron Simulacrum?  The game is not without a couple of flaws in presentation, but these are relatively minor; and the book has a solid finish that totally makes up for these, in the form of his mini-campaign, which is one of those rare cases of an “adventures” section that is not only not-useless but is actually a truly great introduction to the setting.  Overall, its a very solid setting.  I have to admit that it doesn’t push my own particular buttons for a couple of reasons; first, its designed for a set of rules I don’t own based on a system I don’t use for fantasy (love CoC, but never really liked BRP/runequest for my fantasy games).  Second, it is definitely a decent “classical” (rather than medieval) fantasy setting, but if I wanted to run a game in that context, I’d probably choose a setting closer to history (something along the lines of what I did with Albion).  But these are just me.
I think that if you are looking for a fantasy setting that isn’t bog-standard medieval, you could do a lot worse than this one. And likewise, if you’re an RQ/BRP fan looking for a great fantasy setting that isn’t quite as loony as Glorantha, without becoming in any way a greyhawk-clone, this is again an excellent choice.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Canadian + Image Latakia

((originally posted April 19, 2012, in the old blog)

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